Monday, April 20, 2009

Before Madoff there was Ponzi

The Pulitzer Awards had a rocky start. For one thing, the Pulitzer organization -- a board dominated by newspaper editors -- wasn't sure exactly what kind of work to honor. Great novelists and playwrights came easily to them, with Eugene O'Neill, Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder among early winners. Picking exemplary journalism was tougher. Indeed, there were no recipients for the public service award in 1917 and 1920, and no reporting prize in 1919.

That's where Charles Ponzi (shown above) comes in. In search of a model, the Pulitzer board began focusing on watchdog journalism: public-minded reporting aimed at exposing governmental or private malfeasance. And the hallmark entry in 1921 was from the Boston Post, whose editor, Richard Grozier, had grown suspicious of the charismatic Italian immigrant who promised to double investors' money in 90 days. Pulitzer jurors cited the Post for "pricking the Ponzi financial bubble, in investigating his claims to be operating in foreign exchange and throwing doubt on him at a time when the public officials were inactive and other newspapers were either ignoring him or treating him as a genuine financial wizard."

The paper had used local experts to analyze Ponzi's supposed strategy -- the purchase of obscure international postal-rate conversion instruments, which actually had no investment value. And the Post spread word of his fraud convictions in Canada and in Georgia -- and mug shots -- across its front pages.

The Post's Pulitzer honor awakened papers around the country to the value of tough, courageous journalism. In half a dozen cases over the next few years, Pulitzers were awarded to journalists who took on the Ku Klux Klan -- including Southern editors who challenged vicious and powerful KKK leaders in their communities.

Then, in 1927, a Pulitzer public service award honored an Ohio editor who made the ultimate sacrifice. In his coverage, Don Mellett of the Canton Daily News exposed the underworld of mobster Jumbo Crowley. One evening, the pesky watchdog was gunned down outside his house.

The Pulitzer citation to the Daily News -- noting the subsequent conviction of individuals -- credited the paper's "brave, patriotic and effective fight for the ending of a vicious state of affairs brought about by collusion between city authorities and the criminal element."

Such stories set the tone for generations of journalists -- among Pulitzer winners through the Depression, World War II and, perhaps most notably, the Vietnam era. It was then that Pulitzers cited Seymour Hersh's exposure of the My Lai massacre (winning in 1970), the New York Times' analysis of the top-secret Pentagon Papers (1972) and the Washington Post's Watergate coverage (1973).

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